My first thought after seeing Wreck-It Ralph, the latest animated feature from Disney, was "here's the first CGI-animated geek film." But then I realized that this wasn't true. Old-school toy geeks, silver-age superhero geeks, kung-fu film geeks, racing-car geeks—and the list goes on, I'm sure—must have been able to spot a lot more references in films like Toy Story, The Incredibles, Kung Fu Panda, and Cars than I did. Being able to spot so many references in Wreck-It Ralph, about two weeks before I turn thirty-five and without ever considering myself much of a video-game geek, made me feel old. In a good way.
The film's protagonist, Ralph (John C. Reilly), is the villain of Fix-It Felix, a Donkey Kong-style arcade game. Each night, when the arcade hall closes, the video game characters finally have some time for themselves, and it turns out that they have an impressively active community where they can cross the boundaries between different game worlds. Much like the other villain characters, Ralph is a social outcast in this community, rejected even by the residents of his own game. After failing to draw comfort from a support group for villains (hilariously led by the ghost Clyde from Pac-Man, and featuring characters from Street Fighter II and Sonic), Ralph decides to earn the respect of his fellow game characters the hard way, and sets on a quest to prove himself in other game worlds. His journey takes him from the futuristic bug-fighting game Hero's Duty to the sickeningly-sweet world of Sugar Rush, a cart-racing game featuring cute girl drivers in candy-land. There he meets and befriends fellow outcast Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a glitch character equally eager to prove herself.
In terms of plot, Wreck-It Ralph mostly covers familiar ground. Its secret, behind the scenes of our world setting is reminiscent of Pixar's Toy Story and (even more noticeably) Monsters, Inc.; the triumph of the underdog storyline is in the style of Dreamworks's Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon; while its many pop-culture references are the staples of television shows like The Simpsons and Futurama (director Rich Moore is a veteran of both shows). The film sometimes feels like an exercise in genetic engineering, as if the producers tried to splice together everything that works in today's American animation. Fortunately, it's a successful experiment: the film presents adorable characters in a richly detailed world that the audience can immerse itself in, while at the same time laughing at the absurdity of the film's basic premise.
Most of this premise is built around the first of the three original game worlds that appear in the film. The Fix-It Felix environment, while limited in scope compared to the other two major game worlds presented in the film, is actually the cleverest in its video-game behind-the-scenes concept: where do 8-bit game characters go once the lights are off? The film takes the audience within the house that gamers only get to see from the outside, and while switching from two-dimensional 8-bit animation to a modern CGI look, keeps the characters' limited range of movement (a gag that—like many others in the film, I suspect—will appeal more to those in the know than to the casual audience). The divide between the game world and the everyday life of the game turns the relationship between the characters into a class struggle: the tenants of the buildings live in luxury apartments, while Ralph resides in garbage dump (also conveniently invisible to gamers). This amusing interpretation of the reality that the game attempts to reflect gives Wreck-It Ralph a sense of complexity, as does the film's reference to the artistic origins of arcade games and their connection to animation: while Fix-It Felix is an obvious reference Donkey Kong, its protagonist-antagonist relationship strongly recalls Max Fleischer's Popeye cartoons (especially The Paneless Window Washer) which were often credited as strong inspiration for the Donkey Kong game. A lot of thought has gone into the Fix-It Felix environment, in both design and story, and I personally found the segments taking place in it to be the most rewarding in the film.
The other two major game environments in the film feature broader geography, but feel somewhat shallow in comparison—less concerned with game vs. life comparisons, and more with making fun of game conventions. Hero's Duty, an eternally-dark battle where game characters are merely statistics whose main role is dying in all sorts of horrible ways, is amusing largely due to Jane Lynch's performance as a tough, zero-tolerance military commander (recycling—effectively but predictably—her routine from Glee), but feels more like a plot device than a real world. The Sugar Rush environment has a similar problem. Its over-the-top childish design and overly bright colors provide many jokes aimed not only at the gaming industry but at cute culture in general, but it still feels like a place that exists mostly for the sake of things going terribly wrong, and for Ralph to be in the right place at the right time to save the day. Again, it's the supporting cast that steals the show, this time as characters who feel deliberately out of place: Silverman's Vanellope makes her initial appearance as an insufferable brat, but is slowly revealed to be a far more complex character, and Alan Tudyk of Firefly fame delivers just the right spark of madness in his voice for the character of King Candy, the ruler of Sugar Rush.
Despite being somewhat shallower in its later parts compared to its opening segment, Wreck-It Ralph is nonetheless a prime example of the slick entertainment that CGI animated features can deliver. I suspect its place among other CGI animated classics is already secured.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.